The schoolchildren huddled against a cool breeze and a misty rain may not have completely understood the U.S. Supreme Court opinions cited Friday by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, as he spoke from the steps of a grand old mansion on East Fourth Street.
But thanks to their studies and the Robert H. Jackson Center for Justice housed in that building, they can identify with the country lawyer who wrote the opinions half a century ago as an associate justice.
Jackson, a farm boy from Frewsburg who finished his high school education in Jamestown and was admitted to the bar after only one year of law school, loved horseback riding in the surrounding hills and swimming in Chautauqua Lake.
So the open-air dedication ceremony helped match the boundless energy of the students with the lawyer's legacy, which can be seen in the exhibits and programs in the center. The Jamestown-area students were selected to attend because they wrote winning essays explaining why Jackson would serve as a model for future generations.
Before his death in 1954, Jackson had advanced his ideas of justice and fairness internationally and helped establish international legal precedents that continue to be used in war crimes trials.
While serving as an associate justice on the Supreme Court, Jackson accepted a controversial assignment, taking 18 months off to act as chief prosecuting attorney at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. The trials, in 1945 and 1946, resulted in the executions of 12 Nazi war criminals, life sentences for three, 10-to-20-year prison sentences for four more, and three acquittals.
"For Jackson, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the high point of his professional life," Rehnquist, Jackson's former law clerk, told the onlookers.
"His stature as a jurist undoubtedly contributed to the success of the Nuremberg trials. But over and above that, this was right up his alley. . . . It was an advocate's dream," Rehnquist said, describing some of the criticism Jackson suffered while performing the task.
Some justices resented the extra work required in Jackson's absence from the court, while others in the legal community suggested the role presented a conflict of interest and the trials were unconstitutional, Rehnquist recalled. Today, the convictions are used as international standards in prosecuting those who commit atrocities and crimes against humanity.
The chief justice, tall and hatless at the podium despite the morning chill, summarized some of the well-known Jackson opinions that have withstood the test of time. One of those sided with the court majority in finding unconstitutional President Harry Truman's strike-breaking seizure of steel mills for the Korean War effort. Another sided with schoolchildren who refused to salute the flag for religious reasons. A third maintained that the freedoms contained in the Bill of Rights can't be put to a vote.
"Surely Jamestown and Chautauqua County can be proud of their native son on both the national and the international scene," Rehnquist said.
Several members of the Jackson family were present. Granddaughter Melissa Jackson, also a lawyer, delivered a tribute.
The Robert H. Jackson Center, at 305 E. Fourth St., is the site of Jackson-oriented educational programs, lectures and symposiums throughout the year.